Saturday, May 29, 2010

Seasons Greetings, Part 2... Laos

Mr. Wong... took our passports, and shoved his way into the front of the mob of people that crowded around the passport window perched on some concrete steps above the water. After forty minutes of waiting and a little impatience from our group members, we all finally got our Laos visas and carried our bags up a steep hill to some waiting tuk tuks. Not five minutes later we were at the water’s edge again, this time in a secluded cove filled with oversized longtail boats… our home for the next two days. The boats, about sixty feet long and twelve feet wide were wooden pencils cutting through the water. Our seats were stolen out of minivans; their bases wrapped in pieces of old tire to keep them from slipping along the varnished teak floor, seatbelts still attached. The boat pulled anchor and we set out for a two day slow cruise until we reached Luang Prabang.

The banks of the river were at first tangled with trees and think undergrowth as we followed the valleys between the mountains. But soon, rocky outcroppings sprung up from beneath the water’s surface, polished smooth from centuries of the silt laden water. Small villages high above the tree line appeared through the brush, build high up on bamboo stilts. We slowly and steadily weaved between the rocks while the steady hum and vibration of the big block Chevy engine pushed us along downstream.

We made two stops along the way. One was for the boat captain to pay his tax for using the river for transport. The other was to visit a hill tribe village to understand their way of life. As soon as the longtail pulled up onto the shore, scores of children raced down the sandy banks to greet us; their hands filled with embroidered bracelets to sell us. They were pushy little shits… I got off the boat, played a little game with them, and spent 25,000 kip (about four dollars) on five pretty wristbands. When the other twenty urchins kept pestering me to buy their goods, all their faces dirty with snot running across their lips, I knew I was in trouble. That was when I pulled out another 10,000 kip, passed it to [NAME REMOVED] and pointed to her. And that was when I pulled the greatest escape trick since Houdini, since the kids were all following the money; I made my escape up the hill. Too bad the little shits still followed me for the next thirty minutes as we toured the very poor and rudimentary village. We departed with me only losing another 10,000 kip for more bracelets for the rest of our trip down the river. I enjoyed my premade lunch from Chiang Khong of cold pork and noodles with some Beerlao; Laos best contribution to modern society, and simply watched the scenery go by with the cool breeze on my face. We spent the time getting to know everyone on the tour, played lots of gin, and taking naps on the cushions under the warming sun.

As dusk was approaching, the boat was driven up into a sand bar at the foot of a small village. Children were running down the hill in what I thought was a greeting… turns out they would be fighting over who would get to carry our bags up the very steep rocky footpath up to our guesthouse. They jumped into our boat and scrambled like rats looking for cheese. For 10000 kip, it was worth every penny, since I could barely make it up the hill myself.

We would be staying at the mountain town of Pakbeng, a midway stop on the Mekong. With only one road, it would not be easy to get lost. The homes were mostly woven bamboo and thatched roofs on stilts over the water below. This was a very poor village of mostly Hmong and Karan people. Our room had beds… and that was it… but for about $2 a day, what else could be asked for. In the lot next to our house were a group of men playing a game similar to volleyball, except they were not using their hands. They were bouncing a woven reed ball on their heads and spiking it over a net using only their feet. The best one was also the fattest one… made me proud.

The group took a walk down the road, flashlights in hand since there were no lights except those coming from the restaurants, selling more happy pizzas and happy shakes. We checked out the one wat in the town after dark. Up in the hills directly above us we could see flames lick up the sides of trees as the people burned more of the forest to make more room for farming. It was eerie on that road, with nothing around us except forests and the ever present dogs and roosters. Our dinner was good, mostly Laotian fare with plenty of Beerlao, conversation, and happy shakes. I staggered back to the house and tried to sleep thru the constant crowing of the rooster outside of our room.

We ate a quick breakfast of simple omelets, each of us bitching about the same rooster, while the same group of small boys was waiting to pounce on our bags out the front door. The air had turned very cool, almost chilly, and the sky was filled with a heavy mist that rolled down the hills and into the river. We quietly boarded our boat, and pulled away from Pakbeng. We spent most of the morning as before, lounging on our mats, reading, and playing cards while the striated rocks seemed to be pulled out of the water around us. The captain had his work cut out for him this morning, as the wooded boat creaked and bent around the obstacles. A very nice lunch of curries, rice, and vegetables was cooked by the captain’s wife onboard, and we enjoyed our lunch while his son piloted.

After a few hours, Mr. Wong told us to get ready to climb some steps up to the Pak Ou caves. These caves were carved out of the swirling waters of the Mekong back when it was a young river, since they were at least fifty feet above the water level. During the many sieges of the Siamese upon Laos, people would hide their Buddha statues in the caves to save them from destruction. Over time, some six thousand Buddha’s of every size and shape now filled the two caves. The upper cave went back about fifty meters, and we had to bring our flashlights to see anything. A large alter was carved from the rock, and multiple gilded Buddha’s were littered around. A stunning view of the river awaited our harsh climb up the narrow stairs.

Later down the river, we made a five minute stop and a quick climb up into a village to check out the local whiskey distiller. It was one old lady who used sticky rice and yeast to make a sour mash, which she then distilled over two 55 gallon steel drums to make Lao Louke… Laotian whiskey. Tastes like turpentine mixed with tequila and diesel fuel. I could have bought some bottles with snakes and scorpions in them… but was afraid of spending the rest of the trip in the boat bathroom. I was more amazed at the ways she had converted the raw material into a perfect example of distillation… something I teach to my own students using custom glassware and digital tools.

In the late afternoon, our boat slowed and we could see the starts of a town high above upon the cliffs. We pulled up next to a large flight of steps and disembarked into the most scenic town in all of Laos… Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang has the rare designation of being a UNESCO World Heritage City. Located in the foothills of the nearby mountains, the small city has the largest number of temples in all of Laos, thirty-two spread about the tiny village. We grabbed a few tuk tuks and drove out to our guesthouse a few blocks from the city center. Our guesthouse was nice, but had one small flaw. Our room, with two single beds and a desk, was about nine feet by nine feet. We could enter the door, turn to face the bathroom… and that was it. No other space, or even floor, existed at all. We had to place our bags at the foot of the bed just to open the bathroom door.

Everyone took showers and we had a quick group meeting about the next few days. Afterwards, we grabbed some more tuk tuks and headed out for a Laotian Christmas Eve dinner. Everyone poured into a large restaurant where Mai had them set up a large table for us. We dined on many courses of noodles, fish salad, sesame seaweed, spiced soups plus heaps of fried pork and fish… and plenty of Beerlao and Italian red wine. As we digested, I pulled out the Santa cap with flashing lights that I bought in Bangkok to start handing out the Secret Santa gifts we had purchased in Chiang Rai, since I was the most Santa-like (I said it was my jolly laugh, [NAME REMOVED] said it was my jolly gut). Everyone was really pleased with the results, as beaded sidebags, wooden puzzles, and teak marionettes were passed around the table. It was a little sad not to be spending Christmas Eve with my family, and I think everyone felt a little pang. But we took heart in knowing that we were still able to enjoy the holiday, together with new friends, in Luang Prabang.

We walked thru the streets of the town to the famed night market. A closed off street stretched in front of us with temporary red tents that glowed in the night. Women from the local hill tribes were laying their goods, mostly mahogany and ebony carvings with hand dyed textiles and bed spreads. Paintings on bamboo paper hung next to glowing lanterns and touristy t-shirts. Everyone made their way back to the house for a well deserved sleep… unfortunately our beds were concrete wrapped in bed sheets, and, yet again, there was a menagerie of roosters living behind our bathroom.

In the morning we ate omelets with fantastic French baguettes. Southern Laos is known for keeping the bread that the French left behind. Mr. Wong gave us a walking tour of Luang Prabang. We toured some nearby wats and a local silversmith. From there we headed to the waterfront to see the local shops, guesthouses, and food stalls. Every time we saw something new, Mr. Wong would explain exactly what was roasting on the stick. The food market was a packed alley with piles of strange food. We spotted barrels of live frogs and baskets of moles waiting to be skinned and cooked. I ate my favorite steamed coconut custards and unknown meat on a stick. We finished our tour at another hill tribe museum.

[NAME REMOVED] and I walked thru the town, getting a little lost along the way. [NAME REMOVED] went back to the silversmith house and bought some nice pieces before heading back to the room for a nap. Later we awoke, and ate some soup and sandwiches at a modern coffeehouse. Later I grabbed a tuk tuk because we both were hankering for some pussy… Mount Pousi that is. We both climbed the 306 steps to top, with [NAME REMOVED] getting there a little ways before me. On top was an incredible view of the sunset over the city. We climbed back down in the dark and come out in the middle of the night market. We sat down for Beerlaos and people watched for a few hours. A little sales girl saw my fifteen bracelets from the tribe children on my wrist and gave me the tough sell until I bought my now favorite leather and stone wrap. We met up with some members of our group, and decided to treat ourselves on this Christmas day with a really nice dinner. We ran back to the hotel to get cleaned up and met up with everyone at le’elepant, a very fancy gourmet French restaurant. We dined on pork filets, pumpkin soups, spring rolls, and bottle after bottle of incredible wine.

After our morning meeting, we all jumped in jumbos for an hour drive into the mountains for a trek thru the jungle. We started in a simple hill town, and strove into valleys with small crops and up into the mountainsides. Along either side of us were sheer green cliffs full of palm fronds and coconut trees. I know that I’m not in the best shape, but I can keep up with most activities without getting overly beat. But when we started walking directly uphill, and kept going for over three hours, I quickly became very tired and started to really hurt. Just when I was about to die, we came into a glade where a little lady and her kid served us drinks of salted coconut water at a cave entrance. Unfortunately, we had to keep walking. After another hour, we started to hear the rumbling of water. After climbing for hours, we found ourselves at the crest of a mountain, and made a dangerous run down tree roots to the sound of the water. At the end of the run was a narrow, wet set of stairs, and beside it was the start of the beautiful Kuangsi Falls.

The waters were running over the steps which finished up at a wall of cascading pale blue mineral waters. I huge waterfall with glistening terraced pools of green awaited us, with the misting of the falls finally giving me a reprieve of the heat. Just beyond the falls was a conservation area for the endangered Asiatic bear. We headed beyond the gates and grabbed a quick noodle lunch, then headed back to the falls. Some people were checking out the bears… I was headed for the lagoons. I jumped into the bitter cold water and felt an instant relief from the hours of hiking. The mineral-rich waters were cloudy and incredibly wonderful. Some of the others jumped in with me and we enjoyed the deep, cool waters. After drying off, we started back home in the jumbo when Mr. Wong quickly pulled us over to check out a local wedding. Down an alley were a bunch of people dancing in a circle with huge speakers blaring local music. People came up to us with cups of Beerlao and Lao whiskey. We took some chugs but they wouldn’t let us leave until we drank our fill. People got into the dance circle while others clipped money onto the wristbands of the bride and groom. Back to the homestay for a very badly needed shower. Afterwards we headed out for a deep tissue massage, in which I passed out cold and snored halfway through it. I picked up some wine first for whenever and wherever we will be spending New Year’s. A quick dinner of pad thai, and back to bed after a failed call to the family to wish them a Merry Christmas.

Everyone woke really early, around five a.m. Every Saturday, the local monks walk along the main street to collect alms from the people. We all walked a few blocks onto the main street at 5:30 to buy steamed rice and treats to give alms and ask for blessings. Soon the street filled up with devout and tourists alike. We had to rent mats to sit on beside the road, and scarves to wear around our chests. We molded the hot rice into balls, and with a nod placed the rice into the bags of the long line of monks that soon walked out of the early morning mist and descended into the village. They walked single file without a single word. They came through in order of age… little kids not older than four up to ancient looking men. We quickly headed back to the homestay to pack our bags and get ready to leave. Our new transport was a slightly larger minibus for a long drive to Vieng Vang.

The scenery was beautiful, with cresting high mountains all around us. Unfortunately, three people in our party ate a vegetarian pizza at the coffeehouse that I had suggested… and became horribly sick. One was nauseous, but alive. Our two Swiss misses were horrible ill. The drive was a nonstop climb through the mountains; continuously weaving back and forth up the mountains. We had to stop a few times to let them either puke or shit in the bushes. At one point, one of the girls actually passed out… we had to break an ammonia capsule to wake her. We all felt really bad, but there was nothing we could do but try to put fluids into them… also, it was kinda funny. We stopped in little villages to use their version of bathrooms and to pick up more fluids. One village was in the middle of a mountain pass, with billowing mist raging over the road. I picked up some fried banana, mulling over whether I was going to try the rat-on-a-stick I saw cooking over some hot coals.

We drove for eight hours until finally arriving in Vieng Vang. Vieng Vang is a little strip of backpacker heaven. The only things around are guesthouses, restaurants, and internet cafes for rugged Europeans. Vieng Vang is the Daytona Beach of Laos… party central. We checked into our homestay, and quickly booked a tubing trip for the next day. We walked over to a restaurant that is also an organic farm for nice fried noodles and rolls and dark Beerlao.

I got up early for fresh banana pancakes and eggs back at the farm cafe. A quick tuk tuk out of town about five kilometers and we jumped out on the banks of the Nam Song River. The river is twice as wide as Guadalupe, with water incredibly clear and cold. So cold, in fact, that the ladies didn’t really like it so much since the sun wasn’t even out yet. I… loved… it…

All around the banks were rickety bars made from bamboo and twine. Each bar had big rope swings and zip lines into the middle of the river… most for the cost of a single bear. After floating for a little while, I saw a huge water slide jutting over the riverbank. At least thirty feet tall, made with a mixture of bamboo and concrete blocks… I had to try it. I swam up to the bank, bought my expensive beer (15ooo kip) and started climbing. The stairs were tied together driftwood planks circling up the tower. I had to climb over a stagnant pool of water to get to the main ramp. As I approached, I realized that the slide was even larger than I expected, with the surface made entirely of ceramic bathroom tile and a garden hose for the water source. I sat down, holding my shirt in one hand and my Beerlao in the other, and started to slide. It started slow, and then I hit light speed, and hit the sharp ramp at the end. It felt like I was airborne for ten seconds as the water rushed up to my face. When I reached the surface of the water again, everyone was screaming about how far I flew… that ramp at the end really added some distance. And someone found my Beerlao that was knocked out of my hand!

As the bars faded behind us, the river opened up into a calm and quiet river with sheer ebony cliffs, caves, and farms all around us. Several hours of slow tubing and swimming later, we finished up under bamboo foot bridges, as people were driving their motorcycles across. A quick shower and a quick noodle lunch followed. We walked around town, snacking on pancakes of banana and Nutella. Back in our room, we laid back and watched some Aussie television. In the late afternoon, we boarded two vans (ours was decorated with Winnie the Pooh, racecars, and had a karaoke system installed) for a long drive to the capital of Laos, Vientiane.

We left the mountain terrain and drove into the serene farms and rice paddies. Entering Vientiane late in the night, our first large city since Chiang Mai, the noise and congestion seemed almost alien to us. We checked into our very modern hotel, which was a huge change from the “bed-toilet” rooms we were used to. We walked thru town at night for dinner at favorite place, not very good noodles. Easy walk back, checking out the New Year’s decorations. New hotel, very nice, best room yet.

We headed down to breakfast of a beefsteak sandwich and dark Laotian coffee. With Mr. Wong as our guide, we headed into the city for a walking tour of Vientiane. The city was once enormous, but after a Siamese purge, fell into disrepair and was deserted. It was only when the French came in to colonize that it started to regain its glory. French colonial buildings are interspersed between small bamboo homes and small shops. As I write this, I am having a chocolate and cashew muffin and a 7Up in a small café overlooking a large fountain square where children and dogs are jumping thru the flowers, an old American military jeep painted pink parked out front… very Parisian.

We walked around checking out the prime minister’s house, the old royal palace, and the oldest wat in Laos, Si Saket. A crumbling shell of its former beauty but still in use, Si Saket houses over 10,000 Buddha statues, some very large, with many small ones placed into its walls in small alcoves. Mold and time have coated the once bright orange tiles of the roof, and its color filled facades are slowly fading into obscurity. Mr. Wong was extremely proud that during the US bombing of Laos, this was the only temple not destroyed due to pressure from the entire Southeast Asian community. As so it stands.

The midday heat was starting to come out as the temps rose into the nineties. We walked a few kilometers to see the morning food markets, and came upon Laos’ most glorious monument, the Patuxai. From afar, it looked as though someone has begun building a copy of the Arc de Triumphe in Paris, and then found religion with the spired suppa points on the top. But as we approached closer, the grandeur of the structure faded fast. It was mostly concrete with very little decoration. Uncut rebar stuck out like pins from all sides of the gray tower. There is a sign put up saying that the building of the arch was started in 1962, but was never finished due to the tumultuous history of Laos, and called the structure a mostly “monster on concrete.” Kinda sad when one’s own people have to apologize for their ugly failures on such a grand scale. We still climbed the stairs to the top, each level filled with junky vendors of dubious merchandise. The view was nice, as a large water fountain beneath us danced in rhythm to a very loud Laotian song… like an ugly version of Epcot Center.

At this point, it was time to say goodbye to Mr. Wong. He had served us very well, and we gave a nice tip to say thanks. I hope he books only rich couples from here on out.

[NAME REMOVED] and I walked for a few hours thru the city, checking out wine shops and bookstores along the way. We saw the old That Dam tower, and walked along the Mekong delta. While looking for a place to eat, we came across a bar called Sticky Fingers that offered really nice BBQ pork ribs with fish and chips, washed down with a couple more Beerlaos.

Making our way back to the hotel, we both took naps after a long day of walking. [NAME REMOVED] headed out for a three-hour full body massage, facial, body scrub, defoliation, colonic, and mani-pedi. I took the free time to check out the national museum (not very good) and the cultural hall (very nice). While on the sidewalk, a fleet of official looking cars drove past with sirens blazing, and a lottery ticket vendor told me that it was the prime minister… cool. And now I find myself at my Scandinavian café watching the sun go down and the mosquitoes come out before hitting the bed.

After a hurried omelet downstairs, we all boarded our vans again for another long day of driving. After a few hours of nothing but farms and small villages, we started yet another climb into the mountains. The Swiss girls were still a little under the weather, and were taking it easy. We reached a scenic overlook where we could see jagged outcropping of limestone fading into the horizon. Three more hours later we pulled over after crossing a tall bridge over a dark river. The girls needed some personal throw-up time. While they were puking over the bridge, Mr. Wong pointed out the boats the people were using on the river. Long and thin with sharp points on both ends, he told us that these are “bomb boats.” They are made from the millions of tons of discarded shells and bombs that the U.S. dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War. He said we could ask for a ride if we wanted. Four of us headed down the steep embankment while everyone else tried to not get ill from the smell of sick. We boarded two boats with our drivers and headed off into the river. The bomb boats cut a perfectly clean line thru the inky water… but the lack of a keel with a perfectly smooth and round bottom made for a scary ride. Any movement across your body (leaning forward, moving an arm, turning your head) made the boat rock on its yaw.

After half an hour of up and down the river, we climbed our way back up to the bus. We found the rest of the group chatting with Mai and a bunch of teenagers. The kids were prepping to drink some homemade rice wine. They had a large grey clay flowerpot that was filled with a mixture of rice and yeast that had been fermenting for several weeks. They shoved a bamboo rod into the rice and started to pour water into the rice. The water pulled the alcohol out of the rice mash, which they then took turns sucking up thru the bamboo straw. They offered us a hit, and I jumped at the chance. I crouched down and took a huge swig on the bamboo… and my mouth filled with a sweet and delicious concoction. It was really good! We all took turns sucking down the booze for a little while until it was time to go. But since it was New Year’s Eve, Mai asked if we wanted to buy a wine pot for the night’s celebration? We all said yes and loaded up a dry pot full of the mash onto the bus.

Several more hours later, and we finally arrived at our overnight stop in Lak Sao. Our homestay was nice and was the only two story building in town… if you can call it a town. The entire village consisted of a single intersection. We walked over to have our New Year’s meal at the only restaurant in town… literally called “Only One Restaurant.” We ate a large but not memorable meal of local dishes. We decided to head back to the homestay to have our New Year’s Eve party in the lobby. As we walked back, I was carrying our rice wine pot along the side of the road. All the people who were passing me by were honking their horns, laughing that a large white westerner had a keg of their wine.

Once again I must mention that they love me in Southeast Asia. Every day on this trip at least someone would come up to me and ask to take my picture with them, mostly because they were amazed at my size. Such a cute and tiny people.

In the lobby, we tapped our rice keg and pulled out all the bottles of wine we had been buying along the way. The table was loaded with any extra snacks, nuts, chips, and dried fruit we all had left over from our frequent gas station stops. Someone suggested that we wear our sombreros that we picked up in Chiang Khong, so we did, and everyone joined in by wearing any strange hats they could find. The Aussies even made hats out of handkerchiefs for our drivers. We spend the night telling tall tales and seriously imbibing as much of the wine as we could. In the end, only three of us could stay up until midnight, and we drank the night away before I took the rice keg up into my room.

The next morning we had to wake early for a full twelve-plus hours of driving and a border crossing. Hungover? You betcha I was hungover. What made it even worse was that the rice wine keg was a handmade adobe shell… and it turns out it is very porous. Over the night the rice wine had seeped out of the pot and coated the floor of our room. We had to wade thru a sticky booze marsh to reach the bathroom. Parts of my bag had soaked up some of the booze, and the smell did not help with the hangover.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Love the post...especially the part about the lady and the kid serving coconut water. Coconut water is so good. Of course, I try not to go on an exotic journey just to get it, i just go to the store and pick up some vita coco lol. Anyway, thanks for the post